Researching the impact of financial difficulty assistance, bankruptcy and debt agreements: Seeking survey participants!

Researching the impact of financial difficulty assistance, bankruptcy and debt agreements: Seeking survey participants!

My research study

As mentioned in the June 2019 edition of the Devil’s Advocate, for my PhD study at Melbourne Law School, I am researching the impact on debtors of the different options available for consumers who are over-indebted. I’m focusing on bankruptcy, debt agreements and financial difficulty assistance.

Although many people use one of these options each year, we still do not have much information about what happens next, and whether the different options are effective in, for example, providing debtors with a fresh start, or reducing the chance of future debt problems. My study is exploring some of these issues, and in the first stage of data collection, I invited debtors to share their experience through an online survey. Some initial thoughts on the results are set out below.

I am now starting a new phase of the data collection, and inviting financial counsellors, insolvency practitioners, and other professionals in the sector to share their views of the different options, also through an online survey. The greater the response to the surveys, the more I can be confident that the range of views are represented.

Insights from financial counsellors, insolvency practitioners and others

If you work as a financial counsellor, consumer lawyer, or insolvency practitioner, or have another professional role in the consumer debt / personal insolvency sector, I’m keen to hear your thoughts about the different options and their impacts. Please consider completing a short, anonymous survey, available here:

https://melbourneuni.au1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_6RRwGzecQs8dxQx

Finding out about debtors’ experiences

I have been collecting survey and interview data from debtors for some months. Although I am still collecting this data, I have started to review the results to date. Some initial thoughts are:

  • There has been a very low response rate to promotion for the debtor surveys, confirming that it is difficult to recruit people for these sorts of studies. Some of the factors that may account for the low response rate include that many people may experience ‘survey fatigue’, given the extensive use of surveys in marketing, customer service, politics and research; specific limitations in this study (for example, using online surveys only, the length of the survey), and/or a reluctance amongst potential participants to revisit issues around debt. A few years ago, researchers in Canada highlighted some of the difficulties associated with empirical research on consumer debt and insolvency (see Sarra and Sarra 2009, http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1399627), and I think that many of the difficulties that these authors identified are also present in Australia.
  • One of the aims of my study is to explore the impacts of the different options through the lens of financial wellbeing, using the definition “when a person is able to meet expenses and has some money left over, is in control of their finances and feels financially secure, now and in the future” (Muir et al 2017, see https://www.csi.edu.au/media/Exploring_Financial_Wellbeing_in_the_Australian_Context_Final_Report.pdf). An initial review of the data shows that this might be a useful approach: many of the survey responses showed that participants had a higher level of financial wellbeing at the time of the survey, compared to the time immediately before entering bankruptcy or receiving financial difficulty assistance.
  • An initial review of the data also points to the emotional relief that the different options provide. For example, one interview participant referred to feeling that ‘a thousand-kilo weight’ had been lifted off them when their bankruptcy was confirmed. Also, in the surveys, the number of participants reporting that they were ‘constantly worried’ about their finances at the time of the survey was smaller than the number of participants who reported that they were ‘constantly worried’ immediately before their bankruptcy. A similar shift was also reported from participants who received financial difficulty assistance. However, it must be kept in mind that the survey samples were small, and not statistically representative of the relevant population.

I’m still seeking participants for the debtor surveys (open until 20 December), so please get in touch with me if you can help promote the debtor surveys by:

  • Letting relevant clients or former clients know about the opportunity to participate in a debtor survey;
  • Sharing information about the study through social media (eg, Facebook, Twitter).

I can provide some suggested text for an email to clients or a social media post, and my contact details are below. My thanks to those who have already helped to promote the debtor surveys to potential participants.

Privacy and ethics

As I previously identified, the privacy and confidentiality of participants in the study will be protected, and the study design has been approved by Melbourne University’s Human Research Ethics Committee (Ethics ID 1851074; contact humanethics-complaints@unimelb.edu.au). 

More information

My study will continue into next year, and you can read more about my study here: https://law.unimelb.edu.au/students/grd/students/nicola-howell, and more about my other research and my professional background here: https://staff.qut.edu.au/staff/nicola.howell. There is also a separate study website that includes the links to all of the debtor and practitioner surveys: https://debtstudy.wordpress.com/.

Once I have finished collecting and analysing the data, I will share some of the findings through future editions of the Devil’s Advocate.

Thanks for your support, and please contact me if you have any questions or would like to help promote the study!

Nicola Howell
PhD researcher, Melbourne Law School
Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology
Email: nhowell@student.unimelb.edu.au or nicola.howell@qut.edu.au
Tel: (07) 3138 2006

Chair’s report – November 2019

Chair’s report – November 2019

There is an old Chinese curse that goes, “may you live in exciting times,” however with the release of the Sylvan Report when I think of these words, I think of the great potential our sector has for growing in number of practitioners, influence and reach. Hopefully, the government will deliver on this report and we, as a sector, can overcome the tensions between growth and maintaining our high level of professional quality.

FCRC has been busy writing and submitting a tender in conjunction with Carers Victoria that, if successful, could help the sector to grow and continue its move into the health care space.

FCRC has also been working hard on the name change and James has been writing a history of the organisation to celebrate a historic 40 years. Both will have launches in the new year.

The work on stress and burnout continues with the engagement of a professional writer to produce a report and with FCRC and the Board developing strategies to maximise its impact and strategies to get agencies and funding providers involved in the solution. Unfortunately, these things take time to be done properly, so I thank members for their patience and ask that in the interim we FCs stand by each other and are mindful of the pressures on our colleagues.

The Board has been busy since the conference, having met twice already. At its first meeting the Board invited Lisa Garlick to fill the casual vacancy created by my election to the Chair’s position. Welcome Lisa.

I would also like to welcome, again, our new Board members David Balcombe and Tracey Grinter, and congratulate Carly Baker on being re-elected to the Board.

We also bid farewell to the retiring members of the Board, Mark Phillips (Treasurer for four years) and Heather Barclay (Board Director for two years), and thank them both for their significant contribution to our sector.

I would like to give a special farewell to Julie Barrow, outgoing Chair, who stepped up after the passing of Tony Naughton. I also congratulate Julie on being elected to the Board of Financial Counselling Australia (FCA) where she will be an asset to financial counsellors across the country. I look forward to hearing more about her good work at the national level.

The new Constitution means that all Board office bearers, apart from Chair, are appointed by the Board. The Board has met and decided to invite Cathy Clark to stay on as Secretary and David Balcombe to fill the positon of Treasurer to acknowledge the will of the members’ votes, and their distinct skills sets and experience. The new position of Deputy Chair, I am excited to announce, will be filled by Carly Baker. I am looking forward to leading the team into the future.

The Board is currently looking to expand its skill base by recruiting a second co-opted member. Watch this space.

Interview with Linda Burnett, knowmore legal service

Interview with Linda Burnett, knowmore legal service

Please tell us about your background.

Prior to deciding to go back to uni in 2017 to study to become a FC, I worked in a variety of accounting roles. My career started at Mobil Oil, where I worked for 13 years. Our family relocated overseas to both New Zealand and Singapore for a couple of years at a time and, on our return, I decided that I would like to move away from corporate work to work in small and medium sized businesses. Over the years, I have worked in a variety of businesses including a sound and post production facility, a real estate agency, a charity and also with Sammy J’s (and other comedians) producer and promoter.


What motivated you to pursue financial counselling?

We moved from the suburbs to live in Docklands almost five years ago. This was a huge change for our family, as we moved from quite a large suburban home to a city lifestyle. At the time my sons were in the senior years of high school and were becoming more independent. I had become disillusioned working for the ‘rich’ man and with the frequent requests for ‘creative accounting’. At the same time, I was being faced with the awful number of homeless people living on the streets of Melbourne. I started thinking that there had to be some way I could use my skills to help these people – there had to be a more sustainable way to offer assistance than just to drop some money in their buckets as I walked past. I can remember hearing an interview on ABC radio with a financial counsellor. I had never heard of financial counselling before, but this sounded like the perfect job for me. I can’t remember the name of the FC being interviewed, but that interview changed my life.


What are the unique aspects of your role or the area you work in?

My current role is with knowmore legal service, working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse who are applying for a National Redress payment. I have been involved in setting up a financial counselling service within this multidisciplinary service. knowmore offers clients access to a wrap-around service when applying for redress, including access to lawyers, social workers, Aboriginal engagement advisors and financial counsellors.

In this role, I work in three distinct areas with my clients:

  1. Assist them with hardship and debt issues – ideally before they receive a redress payment
  2. Discuss the implications of receiving a payment on their individual situation, particularly in relation to Centrelink payments and their housing situation
  3. Work with them around managing their lump sum, especially around protecting the money from elder and other economic abuse.

As this is a national role, my clients are spread all over the country. I have been on a steep learning curve, needing to learn about the applicable laws and hardship policies in the different states. I have also been involved in a lot of outreach interstate where I have been training people who are also working with clients applying for redress payments. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this role has been working at a high level with banks and other organisations to assist clients at a systemic level with protecting their payments. Finally, 26% of knowmore clients are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. I have been learning a lot about our First Nations peoples.


What has been your proudest achievement to date?

Moving from what was quite a comfortable role as an accountant and going back to uni after raising my children has been quite extraordinary for me. I have made many new friends with similar values, have learnt such a lot and have the privilege of making a real difference in people’s lives. I have been stretched and challenged and have found an amazing new career path. My proudest achievement is that I actually made a decision to become a financial counsellor.


What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the financial counselling sector?

Professionalising the financial counselling sector is really challenging. Ensuring that FCs are appropriately skilled while still retaining their passion and creativity is really important. Offering a meaningful career path and longevity in the sector without burnout is imperative. FCs need support from their employers, FCRC, Financial Counselling Australia (FCA) and each other. There is also the challenge of moving into multidisciplinary organisations, where the FCs work with others in different disciplines to assist the clients. This model makes a lot of sense, and I am working in this environment now, but it is not without its challenges.


What has been the most valuable resource or advice you’ve received?

The most valuable advice I have learned is how to stop hearing the stories that I don’t need to. The first time that a client downloaded extensive information about her experience of family abuse I did not have the skills or knowledge to direct her conversation. I had been working with this lady on her $10,000 power bill – the fact that she had been abused by both her father and husband was completely unexpected. It affected me quite badly. I needed to attend some EAP sessions. And it was there that I received some of my most valuable training. I learnt how to stop the flow of information, make sure my client was safe and had appropriate support, and then direct the conversation to what I could help her with. This training stays with me today and I use it daily in my current role. I know that every client that I work with has been sexually abused as a child. I don’t need to know the details. I do need to work with them in the areas that I can help.


And now the easy questions…

Who is your favourite musician?

Anyone who knows me would know the answer to this question… I am a huge supporter of live Australian music and frequently go to see bands. My absolute favourite (and has been since I was in high school) is Mick Thomas. I listen to heaps of Aussie music, but always come back to Mick’s music. I’ve even got my name as a sound recorder on one of his CDs…


What is your favourite app?

My favourite app would have to be messenger. When travelling recently, I was easily able to contact my sons without the exorbitant costs associated with making overseas phone calls that we used to experience in the ‘olden days’. I love it that I can easily keep in contact with friends both in Australia and around the world. I am unlikely to send a long letter, but I have lots of conversations over messenger which allows me to keep in contact with friends that I don’t get to see very often.

FCRC submission to the Local Government Rating System Review

FCRC submission to the Local Government Rating System Review

FCRC recently made its submission to the review of council rating systems, on behalf of Victorian financial counsellors. We received considerable feedback from our members raising concerns about how councils respond to vulnerable people in the community experiencing hardship resulting from rate charges and rate arrears. These issues are essential to address if Victoria’s rating system is to be fair and equitable for everyone in the community.


We included the following recommendation in our submission:


Recommendation

The State Government, in consultation with peak bodies and consumer organisations develop and introduce mandated hardship and related processes for Councils to adopt and implement, including the following features: 

  • -Consistent, humane and best practice hardship response – incorporating principles of transparency and accessibility, flexibility, fairness and responsiveness to individual circumstances.
  • -Specific provisions for response to family violence circumstances and support for vulnerable people dealing with challenges such as mental health, family violence, low incomes, gambling, substance use, and language and cultural barriers.
  • -Standards for council use of debt collection companies, to ensure debt collectors used by councils comply with the law and all relevant codes and standards.
  • -Promotion of early intervention engagement processes including strategies to support people who are identified as at risk of falling into arrears, and appropriate referrals to financial counselling support.
  • -Provision in flexible responses for options, including debt moratoria, affordable payment plans that take account of individual circumstances, debt waivers, deferral of interest accrual or waiving of interest charges, flexible payment schedules, access to Centrepay as a payment method.

Click here to read the full submission